Possessed by War

By De Giovanni, Janine | Newsweek, December 12, 2011 | Go to article overview

Possessed by War


De Giovanni, Janine, Newsweek


Byline: Janine De Giovanni

A war she didn't fully understand has inspired Angelina Jolie to get behind the camera for a love story set in Bosnia.

As I sat in a restaurant in down-town Budapest it felt as if I was with another reporter or aid worker I had met over the years rather than an international movie star. Angelina Jolie had just returned from the Libyan city of Misrata, which sustained one of the bloodiest battles of the civil war. It has since become a symbol of the suffering of the people there. But despite the journey, and what she had seen in the devastated city, she was not rattled. She could flip from talking about her experiences as a first-time director to discussing systematic rape in Bosnia, her trips to Darfur, or the flood of refugees in the Horn of Africa.

"When I go somewhere, I am always willing to learn about it. I get briefings, I read books, I talk to people," she said. "But mainly I try to go somewhere to bring awareness, to come home and pick up the phone and call someone and try to get something done."

She took this focus and directness, this earnest approach to her new film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which opens in the U.S. this month. She told me that when it came to the technicalities of making a film, "I wasn't afraid to ask the DP [director of photography]. And I listened to my cast, most of whom lived through the war. I listened to their stories and tried to incorporate it into the work." Against the backdrop of the war, she has created a moving and surprising love story of a Serbian soldier and the Bosnian woman he reencounters ambiguously during the war. It is difficult not to admire Jolie, particularly after watching her film.

At 3 a.m., after we talked mainly about the horrors of the Bosnian war--which erupted in the wake of the dismemberment of Yugoslavia in 1991, pitted the nascent countries Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia against each other along complicated ethnic and religious lines, and left an estimated 100,000 people dead--her bodyguard popped his head in. He reminded us gently that it was late. We had been talking and drinking for eight hours; still, she insisted on walking me back to my hotel so I arrived safely. "I want to make sure you're all right," she said.

As a journalist who lived through the siege of Sarajevo, I saw Muslims, Serbs, and Croats who had formerly lived side by side and been friends viciously turn on each other. I witnessed the ethnic cleansing, the burning of houses, the columns of refugees pouring from the country, and, once, a dog running down the street with a human hand in its mouth. I went to see Blood and Honey with an especially critical eye. I was on the lookout for inauthentic details, since other films I have seen about Bosnia left me irritated and annoyed: Why hadn't the director done more research? Why couldn't someone tell the true story of the brutal war in the heart of Europe at the end of the 20th century?

I emerged from Jolie's screening impressed. How could a woman who was only 17 when the conflict in Bosnia erupted in April 1992 have so perfectly captured the horror of a war that focused largely on indiscriminate and brutal attacks on civilians? She is honest when she says, "At the time, I had no idea of the extent of the agony."

But her work as an ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees exposed her to the plight of the Bosnian civilians and how the aftermath lingers on. The women who were raped in the infamous eastern Bosnian "rape camps" are still suffering from the emotional and traumatic fallout; it was an especially sensitive point for her. So Jolie, who has always taken on her roles with an intensity that is almost frightening, immersed herself in reading everything she could about the Bosnian war.

Jolie replicated the city of Sarajevo--which endured the longest-running siege in modern history--exactly as I remembered it. …

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